QUESTION: I’m throwing myself a birthday party. Just because. And I want to do it in a restaurant, because I just can’t face another round of Two-Buck Chuck, Zankou chicken, and that forlorn strawberry whipped cream cake from Phoenix Bakery, even though I do secretly find it delicious. Restaurants are pretty festive, you know. You could ask anybody.
But I am getting up there in years (at least by my standards), and I would prefer to put the whole “who-had-the-salmon?” passing-the-hat thing as far behind me as that vintage Members Only jacket I thought was so clever last year. (What the hell was I thinking?) Yet, as the Bush recession stretches into its fourth year, it’s not as if I’m going to be treating 20 of my closest friends to dinner at Cinch, either. What do you suggest?
ANSWER: Certain Chinese restaurants are all but custom-designed with the medium-size party in mind. The tables tend to be huge and infinitely adjustable, so even groups of 18 or 24 are easily accommodated. There are often private dining rooms available if there are enough of you, which is pleasant. The banquet menus always include the best dishes in the house, and are often reasonably priced — even the fanciest Chinese restaurants, like Sea Empress or Mission 261, have at least a couple of 10-course banquet menus that average less than $20 per person, before booze. (The Shanghai-style banquets at Green City in San Gabriel are especially well-priced.)
It is always a good idea to discuss a menu and reserve well in advance, both because you can prevent the manager from jacking up the tabs with costly delicacies like birds nest and sea cucumber, and because it is always a good idea to find out whether the restaurant on your evening of choice is likely to also be hosting a shrieking karaoke party or a top-volume wedding banquet. I have always been very, very happy with the banquet menus at Empress Pavilion in Chinatown, where the crab is grand. Empress Pavilion, 988 N. Hill St., Suite 201, Chinatown, (213) 617-9898.